Charles Murray has an interesting piece at the Wall Street Journal, outlining his five rules for living a happy life. The first recommendation grabbed my attention: “consider marrying young.”
Murray calls these “start-up marriages,” where the couple is broke and unformed, a contrast to the “merger marriages” of 30-year-olds who have negotiated a sort of semi-romantic confederation that makes for dazzling wedding announcement copy but not, perhaps, the kind of bonding that occurs when you are struggling to pay the rent or figure out what life is all about.
My wife Lisa and I had one of those start-up marriages. We met while getting a tuberculosis test from the public school district where we both had been hired as first year teachers. That state-mandated forearm pricking was our introduction, which carried over to an awkward but promising lunch conversation and, soon, into an official first date (where, I kid you not, our waitress threw up in the middle of taking our order; we only realized it as an afterthought, we were so caught up in each other’s eyes or some such romantic fog). Lisa was 23 and I was 24. We were broke, had student loan debt, and I had plans to move on for further graduate work.
As we started dating, Lisa revealed that she and her friends and family (there were a passel of young ladies among them) had undertaken a pact that none of them would marry prior to turning 25. I think this started as something of a running joke about being tired of immature men, but somehow it stuck. At the time, they all felt that 25 would be old. They didn’t want to be young brides, prone to making foolish choices. Amazingly, almost all of them were married the week after their 25th birthdays, my wife included.
As a college professor at a marriage-minded institution (a sizeable portion of our students marry either during their senior year or just following graduation), I do a fair amount of advising of students who are pondering getting hitched. I love to hear just how they think their lives are going to unfold. Most of them seem to have it all worked out. You know the old saying, ‘If you want to make a middle-aged guy laugh, tell him your 22-year-old idea of how life works.’ Okay, that’s not an old saying, I’m modifying it from something else, but it still rings true.
Marriage is not a self-improvement project. Yes, it improves you, but it’s more than that. Marriage is not a delicate house of cards that you have to build in order to occupy. Yes, it is fragile, but that’s the way actual relationships with living, breathing human beings are. Marriage is not the final piece of the happiness puzzle. Of course marriage will make you happy, but it also will place you in proximity to someone who may be diagnosed with cancer, whose career may implode, or who turns out to be an utter jerk. Marriage is not risk-free.
But I cannot imagine my life without my wife or our twin children. I am not what I once was. I still struggle with my ego, my propensities to draw aside to myself, and my unique weaknesses. But Lisa has a way of pulling me back into the circle. As John Donne once wrote of his wife, she is the foot the compass that ensures that my life’s circle is drawn true. Well, she is the foot that resides in this world; it is God who has fixed her firmly in that place in my life and together we rely on His love for us to overcome our own flaws and failings.
Here’s an amazing fact: of the young women who undertook the aforementioned pact, none has been divorced. We’re talking about 7 marriages, averaging in excess of 20 years. Statistically that is staggering. When I think back on it, we all thought that we were marrying late. We compared ourselves with our parents and a few friends who had married quite young and thought we were long in the tooth, marrying as grizzled veterans of life at age 25. As I look back over those wedding photos, however, I know now that I couldn’t even grow a good mustache back then, one that would match my 80’s mullet. It was an audacious act to marry even at that age. A risk. No—better yet: an adventure.
I’m not sure if getting married at 25 made us too young or too old but it certainly was the right time for us. No dawdling in order to save up for a social extravaganza. No living together to try things out. We just dove in after 12 months of dating and a six-month engagement and started living our lives. Together. In holy matrimony. Somehow I think that Robert Herrick, Donne’s fellow Metaphysical poet, would have approved:
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
Last week we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, passing the point where we have spent half of our lives together. In the WSJ essay, Murray further recommends frequent viewings of the classic film Groundhog Day. I suspect that I missed an opportunity for a good anniversary viewing, since, it’s among Lisa’s favorite movies.
Maybe that’s the secret to leading a happy life, snuggling with the wife of one’s youth, watching a goofy movie, and knowing down deep in the bones that man is not meant to be alone.